Cannabis has never been as mainstream and widely accepted as it is right now. An overwhelming 91% of American adults support legalization to some extent and, at the grassroots level, the US is incredibly pro-pot. When it comes to politics, however, that’s an entirely different story; and this is exactly why there still is such a strong need for cannabis industry activism.
Cannabis laws are confusing, constantly-changing, and insanely unjust. If you want to get involved and be the change you want to see, there is no better time than now! But before you dive right to cannabis activism efforts, make sure to get educated and learn everything you need to know about the plant and the flourishing industry that comes with it. Subscribe to The Medical Cannabis Weekly Newsletter, your source for all things cannabis-related including more articles like this one and access to exclusive deals on flowers, vapes, edibles, and other products.
Current State of Cannabis in the US
Although cannabis still remains federally prohibited, since 2012, a total of 37 states have approved some type of medical marijuana program, 18 of which and Washington D.C. have also legalized adult-use, recreational weed. At this point, 74% of Americans can legally access cannabis to some degree, whether medically, recreationally, or both.
In the last few months alone, numerous states passed updated cannabis legislation. In South Dakota, both medical and recreational ballot measures made it through the elections, but so far, only the medical program is preparing to launch as they are facing logistical issues getting things going with the recreational side of things.
In New Mexico, recreational sales are expected to begin next year but residents are already allowed to grow and possess marijuana as long as they are 21 years of age or older, and of course, they will need to adhere to local regulations regarding limits, zoning, etc. Virginia, the third state mentioned, passed laws last month but doesn’t plan to launch sales until sometime in 2024. Connecticut just passed recreational in June and is expected to launch sales in 2022.
Other states that have seen legal changes include New York – Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill legalizing cannabis in March. This came shortly after New Jersey also legalized recreational marijuana in the state. Along with New Jersey, other states including Arizona, Mississippi, and Montana also passed voter-based legislation to legalize cannabis. Additionally, Alabama Governor signed a bill legalizing medical-only, although patients won’t have access to it until sometime next year.
The Role of an Activist
Activism refers to the all the various acts and efforts that go into fighting for political reform. This can include but is not limited to: promotion, intervening in social, political, and economic activities, building community mandates, boycotts, campaigning, rallies, street marches, strikes, sit-ins, hunger strikes, and so on.
Activism can occur on a day-to-day basis, for example: someone choosing not to spend their money at certain stores. Methods like this can certainly be effective over the long term, but the most impactful type of activism typically comes from collective action on a larger scale – such as protesting by numerous individuals and even organizations. This type of activism that is organized and continues over an extended period of time is known as a social movement.
Cannabis activists are focused on… you guessed it: issues relating to the industry. There are a few main objectives when it comes to cannabis activism: spreading information on safety and medical benefits, increase awareness of social equity issues and marginalization of certain communities, and criminal justice reform. The main goal of cannabis activism, of course, is to advance legislative cannabis reform, while at the same time, illuminating the numerous societal issues caused by prohibition over the decades.
Famous Cannabis Activists Throughout History
There have been so many impactful cannabis activists over the years, but for the sake of keeping it relatively brief, I have narrowed it down to five well-known names that have made a measurable difference for weed in the US and across the globe.
Jack Herer is a popular name in the industry as it is both a well-known activist and extremely popular sativa strain. Herer, the man, is known as the “Emperor of Hemp”. He is author of the book The Emperor Wears No Clothes and founder of the organization Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP).
Herer grew up in upstate Buffalo, NY, but he was born in New York City in 1939. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean war and after finishing his contract in 1967, he moved to Los Angeles and began working at a neon sign company. By the 1970s, Jack Herer became a powerful presence in the movement to legalize cannabis. Herer spent a lot of time at the Library of Congress, reviewing decades of government-backed research on marijuana benefits and hemp fiber uses.
DeAngelo has worked for decades to push cannabis legalization and is globally recognized as “The Father of the Legal Cannabis Industry”; a title given to him by former Speaker of the California Assembly & 41st Mayor of San Francisco, Willie L. Brown, Jr.
Steve co-founded the first commercial cannabis lab as well as the first cannabis investment firm in the country. He also authored the book, The Cannabis Manifesto and created a Discovery Channel mini-series titled Weed Wars. And aside from his major role in advancing the modern-day weed industry, DeAngelo is also recognized for his long, iconic braids and porkpie hat.
California Proposition 215, the first bill ever to fully legalize medical marijuana use, was co-written by Dennis Peron, Vietnam Air Force veteran, and well-known pot dealer who lost his significant other to AIDS. After getting arrested in his home for providing marijuana to his dying lover, Peron put all his efforts into helping pass Proposition P in 1991, which allowed San Francisco-area doctors to ‘recommend’ medical marijuana to patients as they saw fit.
Then in 1994, Peron and other activists opened the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, which was essentially the first medical cannabis dispensary in the state. A couple years later in 1996, Proposition 215 passed with a 55.6% vote and officially legalized medical cannabis use in the Golden State.
Keith Stroup is a US attorney and founder of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He enrolled in Georgetown Law School in 1965 and worked in the office of Illinois-senator at the time, Everett Dirksen. After graduating from law school in 1968, he began working for the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission where he met activist Ralph Nader.
Nader’s work inspired Stroup to create a consumer group for cannabis users. A couple years later in 1970, Stroup founded NORML using $5,000 in seed money from the Playboy Foundation. He served as executive director until 1979, during which time 11 states implemented cannabis decriminalization laws.
Brownie Mary (Mary Rathbun)
Mary Jane Rathbun, also known as Brownie Mary, is a medical cannabis activist who worked with AIDS patients during the 1980s. Brownie Mary got her name because she was illegally distributing cannabis brownies to patients at the San Francisco General Hospital where she volunteered.
Brownie Mary, who was in her late 50s and early 60s at the height of her activism, drew national attention after getting arrested on numerous occasions for passing out her medicinal treats. During one of the arrests, police found over eighteen pounds of marijuana and fifty-four dozen brownies. Additionally, she teamed up with Denis Peron to start the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, as well as helping pass Proposition 215.
- National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, founded by Keith Stroup in 1970, is a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for safe access and fair cannabis reform in both the medical and recreational sectors.
- Marijuana Majority
According to their website, Marijuana Majority “exists to help more people understand the simple fact that supporting commonsense solutions like regulating marijuana sales and ending marijuana arrests are mainstream positions and that there’s no reason those who support reform should be afraid to say so.”
- National Cannabis Industry Association
The National Cannabis Industry Association is an American non-profit based in the District of Columbia, with an additional office in Denver, Colorado. Membership is made up of hundreds of forward-thinking companies as well as tens-of-thousands of cannabis industry professionals from all over the country. NCIA’s objective is to defend the legal cannabis industry as well progressing state and federal laws.
- Marijuana Policy Project
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is leading U.S. organization focused on legalizing cannabis at the federal level. In total, they have passed 13 medical cannabis laws in the past 15 years, and ran winning campaigns in eight of the 11 legalization states
How to Get Involved
If you’re interested in making a difference yourself, well, you’re in luck because in today’s industry, there are A LOT of ways you can do that – either by taking to the streets or from the comfort of your own home. Of course, there are a few key goals to keep in mind before getting involved in any type of cannabis activism. First and foremost, you need to stay informed and up-to-date on all the most current industry issues and make sure you have a clear understanding of the ever-changing legal landscape.
One of the best and easiest ‘places’ to get involved in cannabis activism is online. Social media plays a major role in the spread of news and information these days so you can utilize sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to learn more, meet like-minded individuals, form online groups and associations, and even create media sites, spread information and plan future events.
Find the Group That is Right for You
I mentioned a few organizations that could serve as a great starting point, but it’s definitely worth doing a bit of your own research to possibly find a group that’s better suited to your own personal interests. For example, you could find local veteran groups advocating for medical cannabis, groups that are interested in the prison reform aspect of the industry, or groups like Women Grow that are focused on female-owned cannabis brands. Honestly, there are so many niche groups out there that you could probably find pretty much anything you’re interested in if you really look.
Go to Local Government Meetings
Obviously the meetings in illegal states will be very high charged, but even within medical and recreational states, there are cities and municipalities in which cannabis remains banned. You can attend local city council or county board meetings to learn more about regional policies and what you can do to change them.
Become Educated on Political Candidates and Vote
Yes I know, you’ve heard it before, “get out and vote”. It may sound tired and cliché, but it really is one of the best ways to make your voice heard in any modern society. Read up on candidates as well as laws and statutes that are being introduced and passed, and make sure to vote for pro-cannabis politicians and legislation. New cannabis laws are often written and championed simply by way of strong public support, so get your friends together and go vote for weed!
Attend an Event or Rally
Not only are these larger public events one of the most noticeable ways to demonstrate, they’re also a lot of fun. Local gatherings are a great way to network and meet new people, learn about more events and current reform efforts, and bring the public’s attention to important, and often overlooked, issues.
In today’s world, money talks. Cannabis advocates and organizations can have the best intentions and planning in the world, but none of that will even make it off the ground without any type of funding. Sometimes it can be hard to find the time to get to directly involved, but donating to your favorite pro-pot groups is also an incredibly powerful way to make a difference.
Final Thoughts on Cannabis Activism
Activism is just as big a part of the cannabis industry as cultivation. If it wasn’t for people advocating for fair reform and not giving a f*** what anyone thought along the way, we would not be anywhere close to the point we are today. And just because we’re in a good place right now, that does not mean there isn’t a lot of progress on the horizon and a substantial need for pot activists to push us in the right direction.
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